Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas
Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas
At once beautiful, protective, seductive, and dangerous, the water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic. A rich array of arts surrounds her, as well as a host of other aquatic spirits--all honoring the essential, sacred nature of water. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to have "overseas" origins, and her depictions have been profoundly influenced by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints. She is not only sexy, jealous, and beguiling but also exists in the plural, as the mami watas and papi watas who comprise part of the vast and uncountable "school" of African water spirits.

Mami Wata's presence is pervasive partly because she can bring good fortune in the form of money. As a "capitalist" deity par excellence, her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her very name, which may be translated as "Mother Water," is pidgin English, a language developed to facilitate trade. Countless enslaved Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as part of this "trade" carried with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring water spirits such as Mami Wata. Reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized in the African Atlantic, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and Oxum. African--based faiths honoring these manifestations of Mami Wata continue to flourish in communities throughout the Americas, including Haiti, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.

This exhibition explores the visual cultures and histories of Mami Wata, examining the world of water deities and their seductive powers. It demonstrates how art both reflects and actively contributes to beliefs and religious practices, globalization, and capitalism. Most of all, it reveals the potency of images and ideas to shape the lives of people, communities, and societies.

All images on this web site are courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Figurehead from an unidentified vessel
Circa 1900-1925
Wood, gilt, pigment
The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Zoumana Sane (dates unknown, Senegal)
Mami Wata, circa 1987
Pigment, glass
Collection of Herbert M. and Shelley Cole
Photo by Don Cole